A THREATENED hospital ward looks set to be saved from closure – but NHS chiefs are considering slashing the number of patients who can be treated at once.

Controversial proposals for ward six at Bishop Auckland Hospital prompted protests, petitions and the condemnation of council bosses when the suggestion it could be closed was raised last year.

But care chiefs have now put forward their plans for the facility, with their preferred option to keep it open by merging with another ward and cutting up to eight beds.

The Northern Echo: Bishop Auckland hospitals campaigners marched through the town in support of ward six. Picture: RACHEL CONNER-HILLBishop Auckland hospitals campaigners marched through the town in support of ward six. Picture: RACHEL CONNER-HILL

“We want to keep people out of hospital where we can but, where they are admitted, help them to be as independent as possible,” said Sarah Burns, director of commissioning and strategy for the Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield (DDES) and North Durham Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs).

“Earlier in the year County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust (CDDFT) said they had reviewed services and there was a possibility ward six would close.

“[Durham County Council was] given assurances no changes would be made until appropriate processes could be followed and since then we’ve been working with CDDFT to review rehab services.”

Ms Burns was speaking at a meeting of the DDES and North Durham CCGs governing bodies, which backed the second of four options proposed for the ward.

A report for care bosses claims fewer beds are needed as improved rehabilitation and community health services means patients now spend less time on the ward.

Other suggestions included doing nothing; shutting it down or swapping the ward to a "care home model". The public will be able to have their say on the plans in a consultation due to run from October 7 to December 12.

In November, hospital bosses apologised for their botched handling of the process to decide the 24-bed ward’s future. The facility at Bishop Auckland Hospital is run as a "step down" ward for patients who are not ready to go home, but don’t need the full services of an acute hospital.

In January "appalled" Durham County Councillors branded bosses from CDDFT "disingenuous" when they tried to claim they "never made a decision" to close the ward. Last week it was revealed that stroke rehabilitation services in Bishop Auckland could be shut down and moved to Durham City under plans being considered by the CCGs.

The proposals, which bosses are preparing to put out to public consultation, would see immediate stroke care and subsequent in-patient rehab brought under one roof at University Hospital of North Durham (UHND).

The move could see up to eight beds cut from County Durham’s stroke care provision.